It’s hard to process this grief.
This indescribable feeling that the stable, predictable natural world I knew as a young person is gone, and that something entirely different is emerging in its place.
That we are living through the early stages of a sixth mass extinction event seems indisputable now. All that remains to be seen is how quickly it will accelerate.
The millions of hectares of forest destroyed in these fires will never be the same. The landscape will regenerate, but it will be changed forever and it will burn again, in five years or 10 years rather than 100 years or 200 years. All that biodiversity, all that habitat, all those stores of carbon and sources of oxygen and water, all the wonders we had barely begun to catalogue, all incinerated.
We were living in the Garden of Eden, and we traded it for real-time visualisations of the apocalypse.
And we knew it was coming. And we preferred to turn away from the disaster rather than to face it. And we preferred simple lies to complex truths and we allowed our public institutions, built over decades, to be degraded and sold off. And we allowed bad actors and media barons and tech billionaires to parasitise the processes we use to make sense of the world. Agnotology: the purposeful production of ignorance, structured apathy, the social and political construction of inattention.
So the fires are the fault of environmentalists who prevent hazard reduction burning in national parks and prevent land clearing. (False. Hazard reduction burning is a complex exercise that is generally only undertaken on the interface between public and private land, and it is getting harder to do due to smaller windows of mild weather. It is not a panacea. It can help to reduce fire intensity at ground level, but it will not prevent a firestorm in catastrophic fire weather, which burns through the crowns of trees. Land clearing is likely to make the landscape less resilient to fire — and croplands burn just as easily as forest.)
Or that the endless cascade of broken temperature records is due to the Bureau of Meteorology adjusting its historical data to reflect the narrative of a warming climate. (False. The BoM uses well-established statistical processes to account for changing equipment and other factors. If anything, this data smoothing is too conservative.)
Or arsonists are to blame. (Yes, around half of all vegetation fires are deliberately lit or suspicious. Another 35% are due to accidental human causes. But drought, high winds and extreme temperatures are responsible for the scale of the resulting blazes. Here’s a screen shot from the rain radar over eastern Victorian and southern New South Wales yesterday. Apart from the scattered showers in the north, those are smoke plumes, ash and pyrocumulus clouds. Regardless of the source of ignition, nothing but days of soaking rain will stop fires of that magnitude.)
The denialists who stand in the way keep shifting the goal posts:
- The climate isn’t changing, because there was a cool period in the 1990s.
- The climate might be changing, but it’s due to sunspots or variations in the Earth’s orbit.
- The climate is changing and there’s nothing we can do about it, so there’s no point in harming our economy.
- The climate is changing and humans are responsible, but our contribution is so small, we shouldn’t act until everybody does.
- The climate is changing and we’re responsible, but it’s too late to act so it’s each person for themselves and too bad if you weren’t born early enough to cash in on a century of cheap energy because it’s all gone now, seeya.
This is kettle logic: stacking contradictions on top of each other in a dream logic that provides psychological insulation from the truth, similar to the nakedness dream we’ve all had where we suddenly realise we’re not wearing any clothes.
We’re not wearing any clothes.
The world is ending.
Yes, it will rain and the fires will go out. But our collective resilience against the next flood or cyclone or fire will be reduced, and then it will be reduced again when it all burns or floods next year, and the year after. Even if our distribution systems are hardened, will our crops and livestock survive rolling drought and 50+ degree summer days? Will the insects that pollinate them?
Slowly, and then very quickly, we will succumb to the processes we set in motion with our own hands.
Still, I’m hopeful. At least at the micro scale.
We have learned that help does not come from afar, but from small groups of people self-organising to look after each other. We have learned we cannot depend on national leaders, that our politics is irretrievably broken. That resilience comes from community. That disaster prepping is useless unless it’s done collectively.
Happy new year. We’re in for some stormy weather. Be kind. We’ve failed ourselves and we’ve been failed by others.